The Next Step - Who takes it in 2019?

I’m a big believer that improvement in a team often comes from those who are  already present. Whilst we hear a lot about new recruits, trades and draft picks, it is usually the organic improvement in players that paves the way for a team’s climb up the ladder.

Teams such as Richmond have seen the growth come from the core of their playing group. Martin, Cotchin, Edwards, Riewoldt, Rance – they were the pillars of a premiership in 2017 with supplementary players brought in to complement them. Likewise in 2018, it was Shuey, Darling, Kennedy, Yeo and McGovern. Of those stars, only Yeo came from another club, and it took him four years at the Eagles to truly develop into a genuine star of the game. He has grown with that team into the player we now see.

With teams seemingly looking for a quick fix in trade period, or the next big thing in the draft (and really, the next big thing is usually at least a few years away from becoming anything resembling a star when they’re first drafted), we’re instead choosing to look at the players most likely, or at least those who should be taking the next step in 2019, and those whose improvement will have the biggest impact on their teams.

ADELAIDE – DARCY FOGARTY

Long term readers of this site will have picked up on my man-love for the Fog. He is a beast in the making. He hits hard, he hits often, and after a bit of physical contact, you can even detect a little bit of a smile on his dial. He reminds me a bit of the wrestler, Mick Foley – he doesn’t mind putting himself in harm’s way if it means he can inflict a bit of punishment on you as well.

Darcy Fogarty has the makings of being the most hated player in the competition… and I reckon he’d wear that title like a badge of honour. Hard as nails, and with the body of a man at just 19 years of age, Fog is a potential match winner, but in his first year, he went missing a little too often. Playing forward in most games, another pre-season may see the “new Roo” unleashed for periods in the midfield. I’d love to see him crashing into packs in the middle – you know he won’t be taking a backward step.

He may not have been anywhere near the top of the Rising Star award in 2018, but in a few years’ time, I have a suspicion we may be looking back at the 2017 draft class and thinking the #12 was way too low for a talent the likes of Fogarty to be selected.

BRISBANE – ERIC HIPWOOD/JARROD BERRY

We’ll go with Hipwood first. Though he may bear an uncanny resemblance to a baby giraffe, Hipwood has demonstrated the ability to be a match winner for the Lions. At 21, Brisbane have been and will continue to be patient, but the time for him to start working harder to get to the ball is now.

Hipwood has seemed rather content to be effective with minimal touches, but the Lions need him to be more involved if they want to start thinking about finals. His highest disposal count for 2018 was just 15 touches, which he accrued in back-to-back games against Fremantle and Carlton, but he failed to reach double figures on nine occasions last season.

That simply cannot happen again. The Lions have made it apparent that he will be their go-to forward over the past couple of seasons. They’ve taken their time and it’s time for Hipwood to repay the faith.

With Berry, the Lions seem to have unearthed an emerging star. In just his second season, he notched right on 18.5 touches per game , with a nice combination of contested and uncontested possessions.

When given a run-with role, Berry has been very effective in not only nullifying his opponent, but in hurting the opposition going the other way. His work on the Carlton powerhouse, Patrick Cripps was one of the most effective stopping jobs of the season, and as Berry continues to develop, life won’t be getting any easier for the competition’s top mids.

CARLTON – MATT KENNEDY

Whilst a lot of eyes will be on the new arrivals at Princes Park in the off-season, but I am not sure Kennedy has a complete pre-season under his belt with the Blues as yet, and even when he has started to get a run at it, he seems to do something to derail himself. Last year he injured his ankle early in the season and then went under the knife later in the year to have it repaired properly.

Kennedy is the sort of big-bodied midfielder that should provide ample support for Paddy Cripps through the middle, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think his pace was an issue; a little too one-speed for me over the last season. Taken at #13 in 2015 by the Giants, he is part of the ongoing talent raids by Stephen Silvagni on his former employer. He averaged over 17 touches per game for the Blues in 2018, but increased that to over 20 per game over his last seven games. He has the ability to win the ball on the inside and outside, and is strong in the contest.

If he gets a clean run at 2019, he may be one of the reasons for the Blues long-awaited ascension from the bottom rungs of the ladder.

COLLINGWOOD - DARCY MOORE

So, before last season, all the talk was seemingly about the role Darcy Moore would play. Would he go back, or would he go forward. Basically, he went to the medical room, then to the hospital, then to the stands to watch his teammates, and he did it over and over again.

People were openly questioning whether or not Collingwood needed him, and at some points it seemed as though he was going to be a Sydney player. Well, 2018 was basically a write-off for Moore. He played just seven games and despite looking impressive for a quarter on Lance Franklin, showed very little to convince anyone that he was going to make the difference in the Grand Final.

That said, a full pre-season and a healthy set of hamstrings, and he might be the improvement Collingwood need to go one step further in 2019. The Pies aren’t sneaking up on anyone in 2019. They were two minutes from being premiers, and they did it without Moore. The pressure is now on him to force his way into the Collingwood team and make the side better in the process. Other youngsters took the step - Tom Phillips, Jack Crisp, even Matt Scharenberg before his knee injury. They improved. Moore stayed the same.

ESSENDON - ANDREW MCGRATH/AARON FRANCIS

I’m big on the Bombers for 2019. They’ve had their season of growing and learning with their new recruits. They’ve endured their horror season from Joe Daniher, who should return and remind people why the Old Mongrel thought he was the next big thing in forwards, and amidst all that, Andrew McGrath didn’t quite reach the levels expected of him after a stirling first season in the game.

McGrath’s numbers basically stayed the same this season. He had some halves where he looked like the best player on the ground, and proceeded to go missing for the second part of the game. He bobbed up and was nice and clean off half back at times, but would then be beaten over the back at times as well. He is a very good user of the ball and will take the risky kick when it is available, but needs to do it more consistently. And he needs to hit it because he can!

Interestingly, both he and Ryan Burton stagnated this year despite their standout rookie campaigns. Burton ended up as trade bait, and McGrath, even with all the assurances in the world that the Bombers are happy with him, will no doubt want to see a significant improvement in 2019. He may struggle to get significant midfield minutes, but with Brendon Goddard now gone, McGrath’s kicking off half back will become more important.

We saw glimpses of what Aaron Francis was capable of in late 2018, and that form was the very reason Essendon was completely reluctant to consider him for trade less than 12 months earlier.

Francis looks like the perfect swingman – a beautiful reader of the ball in flight, and a tremendous pair of hands. His mark over former Bomber, Paddy Ryder was one of the best of the year, and with confidence improving, and his battles with homesickness behind him, Francis may take another leap in 2019, and high marks may not be all he’s known for as a result.

FREMANTLE - CONNOR BLAKELY/BAILEY BANFIELD

There’s a ripple effect when a high-class player leaves a team. We’ve all heard about the Chinese language, and how crisis and opportunity have the same word with different inflections… or whatever – I really never took much notice of it. I much prefer Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” line to describe the jockeying for position that will no doubt occur in the Fremantle midfield ranks this off-season.

Lachie Neale is gone, and there is an opening at the feet of Aaron Sandilands beside Nat Fyfe, and Connor Blakely is the guy I expect to push his way into the mix. He looks cherry ripe to move from the half back role to midfielder in 2019, and will provide the second bigger body Freo needs in the guts.

Bailey Banfield is a baby in AFL terms, but already he is playing midfield minutes, albeit in a defensive role. His 20 games in 2018 proves that he is already a big piece of Ross Lyon’s long term plans, and the fact he has been charged with stopping some of the opposition’s prime movers indicates that he is basically having on-the-job training in where to position himself, and where and when to get on the move at stoppages.

Taggers made a big comeback in 2018, and with a second big pre-season, a bigger tank and increased strength, Banfield will be a handful in 2019.

GEELONG – BRANDAN PARFITT/ESAVA RATUGOLEA

He now has 34 games under his belt, but players like Brandan Parfitt have a habit of becoming the key to a team’s success. Whilst some will remember him for being almost annihilated by a Nic Naitanui tackle earlier in the season, Parfitt strung together a super-impressive first five games of the season before an injury slowed him down.

Averaging just under 22 touches per game in those first five outings, he was perfectly complementing the high profile Cats midfield with clean hands and the ability to get to the right spot at the right time. He was moving the ball brilliantly and added an impressive 14 score involvements against the Saints in Round 4.

With an extra bit in his tank in 2019, Parfitt running through the middle would make Tom Hawkins’ eyes light up (Mrs Mongrel thinks Hawk’s eyes are too close together).

The ruck has long been a problem for the Cats, and with players like Gawn, Grundy and the sought-after Stefan Martin patrolling stoppages (and rules changed to allow the big men to take possession out of the ruck contests) Geelong need a solution.

The athleticism and strength of Ratugolea look like they may provide that solution. Cut down by a horrible injury in Round 8, Ratugolea wasn’t quite able to get back as Geelong headed into September. He’d shown plenty to that point, and even an improvement in fitness will see him able to keep up with the competition’s better running big men, and even out-leap them early in the game. They’ve got an all-star midfield - time to start giving them first use of the ball, and the improvement from the big Rat can provide that..

GOLD COAST – ALEX SEXTON/JACK BOWES

Alex Sexton is no secret to those who have actually watched Gold Coast games. He is probably the one Gold Coast forward who put his hand up and looked like someone who wanted to be there last season.

He finished with a modest tally of 28 but in the absence of their “leader” in Tom Lynch, he was one to stand up. Five goals against the Demons and another four against Brisbane showed that he, at least, provided some punch up forward.

The other bright light for me, as someone who might’ve watched six or seven Gold Coast games for the season, was Jack Bowes. It seemed as though every time I raised my eyebrows in response to a piece of play that showed some great reading of the play, or a one-on-one win, it was Jack Bowes involved. A Queensland boy, he won’t suffer from the ‘go-home’ factor, and could become a genuine leader on the Gold Coast. His development and emergence as a prospective leader will be key to the Suns mission to re-establish respect for the team.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY – TIM TARANTO

So Dylan Shiel may have packed up and left, but a ready-made replacement is waiting to step in and usurp his spot in the GWS midfield rotation. They’ve been rather blessed over the past few years, haven’t they? You look at a team like Freo, and a loss like Lachie Neale is significant – to the point where you look for replacements and come up with a couple but they’re nowhere near the standard. In replacing Shiel, you go from 25.9 touches per game at 69% efficiency to Tim Taranto slotting in at 20.8 touches at 62% efficiency.

But he’s five years younger, so the loss is mitigated pretty well. He’s also a former #2 overall draft pick, so the quality is there, and now that a slot has opened up in a competitive midfield rotation, you just know he’s going to get minutes on-ball. He went over 20 touches in a game on 17 occasions in 2018, despite spending plenty of time either at half forward or half back. Unleashed in the middle full-time, Taranto might be ready to break out in his third season, probably a little ahead of schedule.

Does it mean the Giants fall out of contention without Shiel? Not if Taranto takes the next step. Let’s not forget - Shiel didn’t average over 20 touches a game til year three. Taranto has been there and done that in year two.

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HAWTHORN – MITCHELL LEWIS

You know it’s time for a young bloke to step up when the man playing his position in the seniors starts to get his name coupled with words like “retirement” and “trade”. It was a tough year for Jarryd Roughead, but he received little help as a marking target in the Hawthorn forward line. The Tim O’Brien experiment dragged on for a bit longer than Hawthorn fans would’ve liked, and there may be a few drops left in that test tube yet, but Lewis is now the marking forward in waiting.

This will be Lewis’ third year on the Hawthorn list, and though the Hawks historically give players the time they require to develop in the seconds, their forward line is screaming out for a marking presence. Whilst Lewis is yet to even kick an AFL goal, his VFL form has been very good.

If the decline of the Hawk captain continues, Clarko may not have the luxury of keeping Lewis in the seconds much longer. At 20 years of age, Lewis may have to become a man in the seniors a little quicker than was originally planned.

MELBOURNE – SAM WEIDEMAN

So, many will be searching for the reasons Jesse Hogan was traded to Fremantle, and many will find reasons that satisfy them, but this bloke is the biggest reason I believe Melbourne got a lot more comfortable with Hogan’s departure.

Weideman made some big statements in the 2018 finals series. He kicked six goals in the three finals he appeared in, and bobbed up at crucial moments against both Geelong and Hawthorn. With Hogan on the sidelines, the heir apparent stepped to the fore and convinced the Demon brains trust that Hogan was expendable.

It is a decent gamble by Melbourne, backing Weideman in to play the secondary marking forward role behind Tom McDonald, particularly with such a small sample size to use as evidence – he has played just 20 games in the last three seasons – but what we saw over the Dees’ last three games of the season indicated that there was good reason for Melbourne to place their faith in him.

NORTH MELBOURNE – MASON WOOD

Yes North fans, I hear it in your voice when you talk about Mason Wood. I see it in your eyes. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding this bloke, with projections and actuals miles apart with this bloke (much like my monthly budget print outs at work - I really don’t know what’s going on at times. Shhhh… don’t tell).

With Jarrad Waite pulling the pin on his career, the opportunity for Wood to step into the void and cement his place in the team has become apparent… but that opportunity has been there for a while now, and Wood is yet to truly grasp it.

The tools are there. The potential is there. But the delivery – it hasn’t been there as yet. In 2018, Wood played a career-high 13 games. He averaged almost 13 touches per game, but needs to clunk a few more marks to ease the burden on Ben Brown. If Wood can up his marking output – and not taking marks down on the wing or leading all the way to half back for an “easy” mark, but at half forward and inside 50, the Roos’ avenue to goal opens right up.

With Waite in the team last season, Ben Brown was a much better player. Waite took some of the heat from Brown and allowed the big forward to impact the game. Wood needs to do the same. At 25, it’s time he started fulfilling the potential, lest he be known as a “could’ve been”.

PORT ADELAIDE – TODD MARSHALL

I don’t think there is anyone in football who would begrudge seeing Marshall receive a great run at 2019, and making his mark after the horror 2018 he endured. Personal tragedy hit the Marshall family hard, and it forced Todd to spend some time away from the club to tend to matters requiring his attention.

At the tender age of just 20, he has ten games under his belt as a potential match-winning key forward. His performance against Sydney at the SCG was a definite sign of things to come. Against quality opposition he snagged three goals, including back-to-back goals in the third quarter to give Port the ascendancy. He has a great pair of hands and once he puts a bit of muscle on that frame, he will be a nightmare to defend against.

Whilst many may not like Port, you can’t help but root for Marshall to have a good year. He has all the tools to become a star, and after what he’s endured, I’ll be supporting him as he emerges as a legitimate threat in 2019. Go “Sticks” Marshall, you good thing!

RICHMOND – SHAI BOLTON

I’m looking at the Richmond team, and I’m pretty sure this is both a good thing and a bad thing – I can’t see anyone who is going to jump out of the box in 2019. Good inasmuch as the team as a whole is set and people have expectations that should be met, but bad inasmuch as there are no surprises, and I reckon teams need a surprise here and there. They got it this year with Higgins and the elevation of Caddy, but those levels are now the baseline. Anything less is a drop off

The only one I can see as possibly surprising us is Shai Bolton. He survived the Richmond exodus which occasionally happens to successful teams, which means competition between the fringe players is less than it was this time last year. After just three games in his second season, his prospects seemed limited, but if he can get into the side and make an impact, the Tigers don’t seem to like changing a winning formula unless they have to. A medium forward in a team chock-full of forward talent, Bolton inked a new one-year deal in October and will essentially be playing for his spot on the team beyond this season every time he sets foot on the field.

In itself, Bolton’s performance doesn’t mean a lot to Richmond – with Dan Butler coming back into a system after injury robbed him of finals in 2018, and alongside Riewoldt, Lynch, Caddy, Castagna and occasionally Shane Edwards, a spot for Bolton will have to be earned. Injuries aside, the Tiger forward set up looks set but if Bolton can slot in and make an impact early, he might find his niche with a team that will the wave of momentum with him.

ST KILDA – JACK BILLINGS

I can’t believe I am saying this – if Jack Billings doesn’t pull his finger out of his backside and have a good season in 2019, the Saints may as well pull the pin and trade him.

Going into last season, I thought Billings was poised to make the jump to All-Australian level. However, like basically everyone else on the team, he stagnated and fell well short of expectations. When the Saints should have been making a play for finals, Jack Billings was fart-arsing around in front of goal and racking up stats late in games. He looked anything but an All-Australian forward pocket.

His run of ten games to finish 2018 where he did not have under 20 disposals once, kind of made up for his early-season malaise, but Billings needs something special in 2019, and he needs to do it early to give the Saints a chance. A replica of 2018, which was a pale imitation of 2017, is not good enough. He is too good to be finishing ninth in the best and fairest – he should be in the top three.

A former #3 overall pick, Billings is now entering what should be his prime years. This is year six. It’s now or never. We’ve seen nowhere near what he is capable of.

SYDNEY – TOM PAPLEY

I’ve been waiting for this bloke to take a game by the scruff of the neck, and he threatens and threatens and never quite does it.

For some reason, I always thought that he was older than he is. He’s only 22, but as a small forward, should be ready to produce right now. He looks dangerous when he gets the ball, and with Buddy Franklin needing help to kicking winning scores, Papley’s time is now.

He had 24 goals in 2018, but in order for the Sydney forward line to start putting the fear of Gaz Snr into other teams, they’ll need more from Papley. If he can get on the end of few more plays, nail a few more inside 50 tackles and start to approach that 40-goal mark, not only does he burst to the forefront of small forwards, but the Swans start to look like more than a one-trick pony up forward.

WEST COAST – JAKE WATERMAN

We got the West Coast players jumping out of the box this season. Could they do it two years in a row? Rioli, Ryan, Venables… they all made a significant impact to this team throughout the season, and were rewarded with a spot in the Grand Final.

Jake Waterman has a footy pedigree, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in the team as the Eagles rounded into the finals. He’s already shown he has the ability to contribute at the highest level, and will no doubt get another crack to establish himself in the reigning premiership team. If he can snag a few goals early in the season (particularly if Rioli and Ryan continue to work further up the ground), Waterman could be the logical replacement for the retiring Mark LeCras.

WESTERN BULLDOGS – TIM ENGLISH

I left this one til last… mainly because I am going in alphabetical order, but also because this is one of the couple of blokes in the league I am most excited about. You know when you see flashes of something… light, colour, brilliance… and man in the park exposing himself?

Well, maybe not the last one, but watching Tim English in the small amount of time I saw him on the park in 2018, there were enough flashes of brilliance to make me think the Dogs had really found something in their young ruckman.

He’s played nine games, and his body is yet to prove it can stand up to the rigours of an AFL season, but with a small sample size, Tim English looks like the kind of player that could give the established ruckmen a real headache. He’s mobile, he moves beautifully, and his timing when flying for a mark is excellent. His 19 touches and nine marks against Aaron Sandilands and Fremantle emphasized just how well his skills could be put to use.

With English in the ruck, and Aaron Naughton emerging as a force in the Bulldog back line, I’m not sure the Western Bulldogs’ big man stocks have been this impressive in a while.

And there you go. Got your own player you think will be making the next step? I’m all ears, or in this case, all eyes. The Mongrel loves a discussion.

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